The True Value of Character Meals: Are They Really Worth It?

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475 I have proven through my series of articles on Walt Disney World character meals that my family and I like to eat with Disney “celebrities.” The itch that I’ve been trying to scratch for quite some time is: are these things really worth it?

Granted, my kids love them and sometimes that’s enough…but sometimes it isn’t. Character dining is expensive, time consuming, and often featuring sub par food. On the other hand it offers a chance to kill two Disney activities with one Cinderella outfitted stone: eating a meal and meeting some characters. I have longed for the day when I could sit down and calculate the “true value” of a Disney World character meal.

Luckily, the very smart gentlemen at Mighty Men of Mouse (part of the TouringPlans.com Podcast Network!) did much of the work for me. A recent episode of theirs unveiled a simple yet interesting formula called a Leveraged Equity Number…or L.E.N.

What is L.E.N.

L.E.N. is calculated by adding the total cost of your hotel, tickets, and transportation and dividing this number by the total number of hours you plan on being “active” on your vacation (i.e. everything outside of your hotel room). The result is a cost per hour of your Disney vacation, which can be used to calculate the “cost” of things such as riding the bus or waiting in line.

Another item L.E.N can help quantify is the true cost of a character meal. The example I will be using for the purposes of this article is the Princess Storybook Dining at Akershus Royal Banquet Hall, which is found in the Norway pavilion of Epcot. There are a few reasons for this choice: 1) It is a meal I like and have done multiple times. 2) I feel that the lunch and dinner are decent values for character meals (decent food for only one arm and half a leg). And 3) The princesses in attendance can all be visited elsewhere, most of them in Epcot.

132The Cost of My Time

So, for an upcoming trip for my family of four (myself, my wife, my 4 year old daughter, and 2 year old son), I managed to find airfare for $562 total. Added to this are 2 adult and 1 child 7 day Park Hopper tickets valued at $1,156 and 7 nights in Port Orleans French Quarter at the cost of $1,123. The total cost is $2,841.

For each of the 6 full days (non-travel days) we will be in Walt Disney World I estimate that we will average 10 hours of being active, assuming we are out of the room at 8am, napping from 1pm-4pm, and back to the room at 9pm. To those 60 hours I added 6 hours for our arrival day. The $2,841 from above divided by the 66 hours equals a L.E.N. of $43.05. Therefore, each hour of my vacation is “worth” $43.05, whether I spend that hour eating, standing in line, or riding a bus.

The Real “Cost” of the Character Meal

When considering the value of a meal, the cost of the food must be considered in addition to the time. I will split the middle and use the price for an Akershus lunch (here is the all-you-care-to-eat menu), which is $38.99 for an adult and $23.99 for ages 3-10. Plus tax, tip, and alcoholic drinks, my family’s tab would be approximately $150. In addition, I am estimating one hour of eating and greeting time with the princesses. Therefore, with a L.E.N. of $43.05 (rounded to $43), the total cost of the Akershus lunch to me is $193.

The Alternative

If I choose to forego the character meal and meet each princess individually it can be done fairly easily. Snow White, Jasmine, Aurora, and Belle can all be met in Epcot’s World Showcase. Ariel can be found in her new grotto near the new Little Mermaid ride in the Magic Kingdom. Sure, Belle will not be in her ballgown and Ariel will have a mermaid fin, but to children those differences may not matter. Now the tricky part is estimating the time spent in line waiting to meet these five princesses, but I’ll save that for last.

1440

Of course, we still have to eat. To substitute the lunch meal, I will consult the Tangerine Cafe menu in Morocco, which is one of my favorites. If I get the chicken and lamb combo, my wife gets the Chicken Wrap and we each get a beer that would come to approximately $40. My kids would eat food we bring to the park, and that’s not just me trying to be cheap, that is what they would honestly do. Naturally a counter service meal would also take less time, so I will estimate half an hour, making my L.E.N. for this meal $62.

So far the Akershus meal is costing $131 more, but now we come to actually meeting the princesses. The reason meet and greets are extremely hard to predict is because of the on and off nature of it. You may be in line for 10 minutes, then have to wait 15 while the characters take a break before you actually meet them. Alternatively you may just sneak in ahead of their break making the wait either 10 minutes or 25 depending on one spot in line.

Rather than attempt to guess at the wait, here is the break even point: At $43 per hour, that $131 difference works out to about 3 hours of time. That means about 37 minutes per each of the 5 princesses. I don’t know about you, but averaging 37 minutes per princess seems a little high.

Conclusion

Alright, so this isn’t as much a conclusion as it is a qualification. Based on the math, this particular character meal does not seem worth the time and money it costs. Other character meals will differ based on their costs and the availability of the characters. For instance, if you want to meet Lilo (from Lilo and Stitch) ‘Ohana at the Polynesian is the only place where she is commonly available. The value would be less important if meeting that particular Hawaiian sweetheart is your goal.

The most important thing to keep in mind however, is that the “active” time on vacation is a zero sum quantity, meaning that if I use 2 hours to visit princesses (an example, not necessarily a prediction) and 30 minutes to eat that is time spent not doing something else. The one and a half hours extra that plan costs compared to the time of the Akershus meal could be time I would spend on other attractions or meeting additional characters. To properly quantify the value of a character meal I would need to map out my entire trip. I may come back and do that in the next few weeks, but that is definitely more intensive.

So, is a character meal worth it? It’s hard to say definitively, but the evidence is that it is at least close enough to strongly consider skipping them. The convenience of a character meal versus the potential food quality and savings of the alternative is an argument that this lowly analyst could not possibly settle.

What say you: Is character dining a saving grace or black hole from which money never returns?

 

 

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Posted on August 22, 2013

29 Responses to “The True Value of Character Meals: Are They Really Worth It?”

  • by Lin Howe-Young on August 22, 2013, at 6:20 am EDT

    At a character breakfast I am guaranteed face time with characters, I am eating, and I get to sit down. Meeting characters outside meet and greets can be happenstance and waiting for characters in meet and greet lines means I am standing (in line waiting), fidgeting which equals ride time lost. When we do go to the parks, our party consists of 3 adults including one who is in a wheelchair. I can only imagine what dealing with kiddos would be like….

  • Whilst I can see this as potentially a useful exercise in some ways I can see many flaws. First it assumes you actually value meeting and greeting the characters at the restaurant and this depends on the guests attending. Second, if you go with children, character meals can impact a meal time and thus cost more in snacks if your kids spend more time interacting than actually paying attention to their meal.

    Our family tend to circle the parks as we do normally and drop into lines to meet and greet when they are short-ish. For us, there are some key characters that you just cant miss and most of those can be found at Epcot Character Spot for a big win!

    In short we like meeting and greeting, but that’s not the only reason we go to WDW so we spend very little time doing it. The overall cost of a character meal just isn’t worth what it returns which to us is a few signatures (maybe unique) and possibly hungry children.

    • by Brian McNichols on August 22, 2013, at 8:03 am EDT

      If you don’t value meeting the characters at the restaurant, a character meal is definitely not worth it. I do agree about the kids eating, but I find that to be a problem (at least with my kids) at every WDW meal. They are always distracted or looking toward what’s next rather than eating.

      I’m with you, if we don’t do a character meal we very rarely meet the characters. I’m very line-averse :)

  • I love your analysis! From a purely economic standpoint, it makes lots of sense. However, it does presuppose that saving time and/or money is your key goal. For many guests this will be the case. But some folks will prioritize other things such as peace of mind (I KNOW my daughter will get to see Belle), comfort (sitting rather than standing while waiting), access to air conditioning, novelty (I’ve been dying to try this new place), family tradition (we always eat at Akershus; that’s what vacation means to us), or any number of other factors.

    Nevertheless, this is a terrific tool to add to any trip planning arsenal.

  • by Jillian Rodgers on August 22, 2013, at 7:33 am EDT

    We actually have a lunch booked here -Cinderella’s Royal Table was of course booked :( – but we are going during the free dining plan time frame. We got the Disney dining so this particular restaurant costs us only the equivalent of 1 table service meal. So I would think under certain circumstances then the character dining might be more cost efficient? We have never been so I do not really know how much interaction we will get with the characters?

    • by Brian McNichols on August 22, 2013, at 8:08 am EDT

      First, Akershus is a great value under the dining plan. At one credit versus Cinderella’s two it’s, for all intents and purposes, half the price. This analysis really does not factor in the dining plan.

      Second, the character interaction is very good. Each princess will come right to the table and spend a minute or two talking and taking pictures. It’s quite enjoyable.

  • Your analysis did not address one factor: early admission to a park on a day when early admission is not otherwise available. That enables my group to have breakfast and be deep into a park when it opens. Of course one needs to get up early to do this but, I consider it to be quite a benefit.

    • by Brian McNichols on August 22, 2013, at 8:12 am EDT

      Great point! I totally missed that advantage.

    • This is the benefit that tips the scale for us in favor of continuing to do character dining. We only do character dining for breakfasts.

      • I totally agree. We did two before-the-park-opens breakfasts our last trip and have two more scheduled for our next trip coming up in early Dec. It’s great to get photos, you’re not wasting time you could have spent on attractions, and when you’re done you can ride with no lines.

  • I personally see great value in character dining especially if you add a Disney dining plan to your vacation package. I hate waiting in line! So to be able to sit down, have someone bring me food, and each of the characters come to me is completely worth it in my book. I feel it is a much more relaxed setting for the characters to interact with my child and the personal attention they give is wonderful. When you stand in line and then get up to meet the character you see all the people waiting in line behind you and you feel rushed. Don’t forget you also get a 5×7 photograph with Belle at Akershus. And if you are celebrating your birthday a special treat and a birthday card signed by all the princess. So my vote is take a load off. Your at Disney, it’s not cheap, sit back and enjoy the experience and let those character come to you!! :-)

  • Great Article!!! I loved the Mighty Men of Mouse episode when they discussed the L.E.N. it was nice to see it put to use in a blog post.

    The L.E.N. is just one tool. As many have pointed out lots of things should go into considering if a character meal is right for you or your family. Either way, and however you choose to evaluate things, I think the L.E.N. is a great tool to have at your disposal.

  • by Kristina Murphy on August 22, 2013, at 9:17 am EDT

    Somewhere like Akershus would also include the photo keepsake, which I think is a nice souvenir that should be factored in to the value :)

  • One sort of incalculable thing about a character meal is the quality of the characters/cast members. We had breakfast at the Grand Floridian with Mary Poppins and Tigger was one of the characters there, and he was sensational. He was so animated, knew the character inside and out and paid attention to the reactions. It made it a much more special experience for us and our kids. But that’s such a random chance, it’s impossible to plan. If it had just been a “regular” Tigger, we probably would have found the breakfast to be very expensive for what we got.

    So, if you’re going to WDW for the first time and trying to figure out if/when to go to a character breakfast, make the reservations for the ones you’re interested in, with the first being one with a character you or your kids really want to meet. Gauge how that goes, and if your kids are scared or just not into it, you can cancel the reservations (just be sure you do it in time so you don’t get charged).

    One strategy I heard someone use is to go to the park early, but make a character breakfast reservation for later in the morning. I think they got a muffin/scone/fruit/etc. at the bakery early to keep from being too hungry, but would be ready to eat at the later breakfast.

    They did it because it likely won’t be as busy, so the characters can linger and/or get to you faster, plus you can save by not needing a big lunch, too. It’s not for everyone, but it makes sense if you can go without a big meal early.

    Dave

  • So I loved this analysis. The quantitative nerd in me was drooling. A few notes:
    1. Vacation days are not a zero sum, at least for a lot of people. Many companies have options to buy or sell extra vacation time, so you could actually calculate the cost of waiting in lines and taking an extra day of vacation, vs. doing 5 character meals.
    2. You need to look at it from a marginal cost perspective. Adding an additional day to tickets gets cheaper as well as you don’t add anything to airfare generally the more days you stay. It may be marginally cheaper to extend your trip one more night from returning Saturday to returning Sunday, than character meals cost.
    3. All of the other details people brought up: decrease in risk (you know you are meeting Belle), comfort (AC and seating), family tradition could all be given $ values based on utility and thus factored into your analysis.

    Now aren’t you all glad you don’t have to go on vacation with me and me spreadsheet :)

  • We’ve done many character meals, and after our last trip (where we did 5 character meals) we decided to not do more than two on our next trip. I am a big scrapbooking girl, and my main problem was this: Character meal photos are terrible. There are always people wide mouthed eating in the background, and even if there is no one in the background, the clear ‘restaurant’ background is just not good for photos.

    We did 1900 Park Fare dinner, and the pics were terrible, and we had to get the step sisters and mother all separately, this takes up valuable scrapbooking realestate. In the park, there is rarely a line longer than 10 minutes for all three of these crabby ladies, right outside the castle, making just one wonderful picture.

    The Garden Grill has the absolute best picture opportunities (if you are in a bottom level booth) because there are no tables or people to get in your shot, and the different scenes from Living with the Land gave us the best backgrounds. You couldn’t tell that we were in a restaurant, and it was just my beautiful kids and the characters. We will do this one again for sure (even though it was my least favorite food of any character meal).

    We will also eat breakfast again at cinderella’s castle, because my children value eating in the castle as a highlight of the trip. Plus, the line for Jasmine outside of a character meal can get crazy, the same with Ariel’s Grotto. The grotto can get more than an hour wait! Plus, you get a gorgeous photo with Cinderella with a beautiful background, and I have truly enjoyed the breakfast food each time I’ve eaten here.

    • I’m not sure about the scrapbooking but i would add something about the setting of each meals. my daughter is a HUGE cinderella fanatic and cannot wait to eat at her castle. something that may not be quantifiable but definitely worth the extra money.

  • One of the many things I enjoy about this website and the books is how they create logorythms for just about any metric of a WDW experience. And how we’re all free to utilize or ignore the well-researched advice. It’s usually a fasinating read, even if I know I’m going to overpay and eat too much average food at Cinderella’s Castle because my now-adult daughter and I Just. Love. Every. Moment. :-) Of course, I’ll use the same column to brush off the character meal at Akershus. We humans are funny like that, aren’t we?

  • We have no kids, so character meals aren’t a huge priority for us. The quality of the food is a major factor – we aren’t paying $$$ for a mediocre meal just to meet Mickey. But we figured that at some point in our lives we wanted to have the experience of attending a character meal. So far we’ve had two character meals.

    Lunch at Tusker House in Animal Kingdom was pretty good – some of the food was more interesting than standard buffet fare, albeit not as interesting as at Boma, and the character experience was fun.

    Breakfast at Cape May Cafe was awesome – the food was fresh and tasty, the selection was quite varied, the atmosphere was peaceful even with numerous excited kids running about, and the character experience was fun.

    Both meals gave us a chance to relax and actually meet characters – since we have no kids, waiting in line for character experiences in the parks isn’t something we care to do. Character meals aren’t something I need to do every trip, but every now and then I think it’s worth the extra money.

  • Another thing that can’t be measured in this is rest time. We have a 9 and 6 year old and scheduling a lunch or dinner meal forces the kids to rest for an hour and get re-energized. They don’t want to go back to the hotel for 3 hours to rest, but a QSR for 20mins doesn’t always do the trick. So a sit down meal is usually ideal.

    We also are a family that likes to do pre-opening breakfasts also.

  • I Love This Article – It definitely speaks to the math nerd in me! I will do the L.E.N. on all of my vacations from now on! We schedule several character meals because these are our afternoon breaks instead of going back to the hotel. They also eliminate us having to stand in line for any of the characters. The kids love them and we have some great pictures that we wouldn’t have taken otherwise. My number 1 reason is that I don’t want to waste any ride time standing in who-knows-how-long-of-a-line you’ll be standing in for characters. My ride time is ‘Priceless’ to me! I need to do this for FDD also because we try to take advantage of that whenever we can. Thanks for the article!!

  • Very interesting. Using this formula, I divided up my hotel, plane tickets, park tickets, and rental car. Then I factored in the amount of hours I spent at Epcot and the cost of each beer to determine that on the day I went to Epcot and drank around the world, I actually spent $19.50 on each beer. It was still worth it.

  • We just came back from a 7 day visit to WDW where we did three character meals and we have done many in past visits. Last year I would have said yes, you must to character meals. However, I have changed my tune. I would say they are not worth it if you go during a slower time. We had better character interaction with the characters we waited in line for, plus had photo pass pictures. The food at the character meals is always mediocre, at best, and the characters spend very little time at your table. As for rest, kids don’t rest at these meals. They are too excited to eat, the restaurants are loud, and us parents are on constant character look-out. Thus, not an enjoyable meal.I will only do Cinderella’s Royal Table in the castle again. One, because it is the castle and two, we had better character interaction there.

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